What’s better than a really excellent engineer working on a project? Not just more engineers working on a project but more engineers who can collaborate effectively.
I’ve been working on an engagement focused on increasing the productive output of teams of software engineers. One part involves identifying who the most successful software engineers are, so their performance can be replicated. To supplement my own observations, I had the chance to talk with a team at IBM that was doing much the same thing — analyzing data from surveys of more than 200 software developers to determine the traits that made them successful in that role. They had expected the most successful to be the ones most technically competent, but what they found was that best were those most adept at teamwork, collaboration, and building relationships.
“Most of the time, rightly or wrongly, software engineers and developers are typically thought of as loners, preferring to work independently and not necessarily working well with others,” says Bryan Hayes, a director with Kenexa (which IBM acquired last year) who was a researcher on the project. “But in fact, according to IBM’s findings, the most successful software engineers buck the common stereotypes.”
In particular, IBM found, the most successful technical staffers are the ones who:
- Make a contribution to others. One of the ways already expert technical leaders can further strengthen their technical and professional skills, as the article “Making Yourself Indispensable,”explains, is to become better at the complementary skill of developing other people. Coaching and developing others enables technical professionals to share their knowledge and experience, broadening their impact on the organization they work for. The old saying credited to Yogi Bajhan— “If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it” — is particularly apt for technical experts. If you’ve ever prepared to teach a class or even coach someone, you know that it forces you to think much more explicitly about how and why you do what you do well.
- Focus on working together in complementary ways to accomplish a common goal. The most effective technical experts develop working relationships and forge alliances with colleagues so they can effectively share both information and resources critical to the success of a project. They recognize that their expertise is only a means to an end of accomplishing common goals. On one very effective team I observed, for instance, software engineers were particularly deft at dividing up tasks in a way that would help the group reach the company’s goals the fastest. They focused on who could most effectively get each task done even when that meant some people would have to give more effort and time than others.
- Display a highly collaborative spirit. I know, you don’t often think about a lot of spirit when it comes to engineers, but the most successful possess it. Dan Goleman highlighted a study at Bell Labs in his seminal book Emotional Intelligence that sought to identify what set apart the top 10% of this already elite group. The critical difference, detailed interviews revealed, was not academic pedigree or IQ but the stars’ interpersonal skills and how much their professional relationships contributed to their engineering work performance. When technical experts don’t do a good job developing relationships, their technical competence is hidden.
- Are highly responsive to the needs of their customers. It will not surprise the less technical among you that the most effective software engineers kept a firm eye on the purpose of their efforts by keeping the customer at the center of their activities. This should go without saying, but any software engineer will tell you how easy it is to focus on the details of a job and lose sight of its ultimate purpose. Rather than just designing or building to specs, the best technical experts use questions like “How will customers ultimately use this?” and “What is the client trying to accomplish?” to spur creative solutions or anticipate unintended consequences.
So the best of the best shatter our stereotypical image of the technician working away in isolation, coding, solving, building, and fixing. They are in fact, among the most relationship focused people in an organization.